Acclaimed fiction writer, poet, and essayist Nilofar Shidmehr speaks to her editor, Michelle MacAleese, about being an exophonic writer. Shidmehr’s most recent book, published in 2019 by House of Anansi Press, is Divided Loyalties, a collection of short fiction that spans four decades to present an unflinching gaze on the lives of Iranian women in post-revolutionary Iran and the contemporary diaspora in Canada.
Michelle MacAleese, Editor: Hello, Nilofar. It’s a real pleasure to have this occasion to speak with you about what you do. While we worked together on the manuscript, you taught me the term “exophonic writer.” Can you tell me more about that?
Nilofar Shidmehr, author of Divided Loyalties: I am an exophonic writer; I write in a language that is not my mother tongue. Some famous examples include Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, Milan Kundera, Khaled Hosseini, and Elif Shafak. Some exophonic writers acquired the second language as children and some as adults. Some are bilingual and some not. Some are literate in only one additional language beyond their native language and some in two or more.
I migrated to Canada at the age of twenty-eight, and I was unafraid of taking on the challenge of writing in a foreign language. Most Iranian expats told me that writing in English would lead to me losing my ability to write in my mother tongue. They often quoted a Persian expression that says, “Once crow insisted to imitate walking like partridge, she forgot walking altogether!” I disregarded their predictions of my inevitable failure and tenaciously pushed forward with writing creatively in English. As another exophonic writer, Aga Lesiewicz, puts it, “What started as an aspiration, a challenge, has become a way of life.”
MM: It can be hard to ignore the criticisms of the people around us.
NS: It is difficult but perhaps not so much for a people so proud and stubborn as Iranians. Iranians don’t identify as colonized subjects, and neither do I. I didn’t grow up thinking of myself as a colonized subject. I didn’t see myself as less than or inferior to Westerners or Americans. On the contrary, I saw myself as equal to any world citizen. I thought I could be a world writer. It is only here in Canada that I have sometimes felt that others consider me less capable of becoming an “English” writer. It saddens me to a great degree.
But I never uprooted myself from the Persian literary soil. Rather, I have grown offshoots whose fruit are five poetry books and two collections of short stories in Persian and English.
MM: We’re so glad you published with Anansi. I recall you were travelling to promote a new book of short fiction in Farsi while you and I were developing the manuscript for Divided Loyalties and I was impressed that you were actively writing and publishing in two different languages. Though written in English for English-speaking readers, all but one of the stories in Divided Loyalties are set entirely or in large part in Iran. The other has an Iranian-born Canadian as its protagonist.
NS: Yes, that’s right. I write about something I know inside out: life in Iran since I was born. This is because, unlike several second-generation Iranian immigrant writers who don’t have substantial first-hand experience of living in Iran, I am very concerned about the authenticity of my writing. Many of these writers cannot even speak the local languages; many others cannot read and write in those languages, thus for their research they rely on English-language sources. These shortcomings lead to the creation of what postcolonial literary scholars call “neo-orientalist literature.” Lacking subtle and precise details of life, neo-orientalist books could contain historical errors, false information, and misrepresentations of people and situations.
In Divided Loyalties, I tried my best to remain immune to the flaws of literary neo-orientalism, which, as the literary scholars Ali Behdad and Juliet A. Williams maintain, cause misrepresentations of the reality of Middle Eastern societies or subjects.
I was born and raised in Iran and lived most my life in my country of origin. The proof that my stories come from my lived experience is in the very details that can be verified by Iranians who have lived in Iran during the last fifty years.
MM: You have been promoting your book at various literary events across Canada and the United States. How do you think that being an exophonic writer has influenced your experiences at these events in front of audiences of many unilingual English speakers?
NS: I have a thick Persian accent, which becomes known in verbal communications. My accent usually comes as a surprise to the audiences at my presentations and to those who meet me in person. It often puts doubt in their minds about my credibility writing in English.
Based on my experience, accent is seen as a disability for English-language writers. Many consider the English language as property of the property of native speakers. Exophonic writers like me are seen as strangers who have invaded other people’s territory or habitus, staking a claim to something that is not rightfully theirs. Many English writers and audiences cannot accept that exophonic writers like me who speak English as a second language (ESL) and with a strong accent are legitimate.
MM: Fortunately, not everyone sees works by exophonic writers in this way. Your books in English have been praised widely by reviewers, bloggers, and readers. Still, how do you continue in the face of this reaction from audiences?
NS: I often feel mistreatment, discrimination, and marginalization in literary settings, and, at times, I get so overwhelmed that I want to quit writing in English and go back to my engineering profession. So far, I have persisted against all the pressure exerted on me because of my accent and ESL demeanour. To me, just as all human beings are connected and from the same family, their languages are also kin to one another. For example, Persian is a part of the family of Indo-European languages. World languages and literatures belong to all of us, no matter where we were born and grew up and where we live. We all have a right to express ourselves in the languages of our choice, with or without an accent. Our literary expressions make languages change and grow.